What’s there to like? Facebook Likes and social object relations

Facebook’s recent F8 announcements concerning the Like button, connected pages, and Open Graph api have resurrected some discussion around social objects. I wrote last week about social objects from a theoretical perspective, and want to clarify a few top-line points that I think are worth consideration, particularly given Facebook’s apparent semantic and social search strategies.

There are two approaches to social objects. One is theoretical, and one is practical. I will only touch on the theory of social objects briefly here, focusing instead on a few practical implications of an object-centric theory.

In Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol from a Web Developer’s Perspective, Dare Obasanjo does a nice job of recapitulating one view of social objects relevant to Facebook Likes. He cites a post written by Hugh Macleod in 2007: social objects for beginners

The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. Human beings are social animals. We like to socialize. But if think about it, there needs to be a reason for it to happen in the first place. That reason, that “node” in the social network, is what we call the Social Object.
Example A. You and your friend, Joe like to go bowling every Tuesday. The bowling is the Social Object.
Example B. You and your friend, Lee are huge Star Wars fans. Even though you never plan to do so, you two tend to geek out about Darth Vader and X-Wing fighters every time you meet. Star Wars is the Social Object.

In this view, the object structures relations and is the reason for communication. It represents a shared interest, and for all intents and purposes serves as social navigation. Tags are a similar kind of navigation, useful for finding people with a common interest. And this would seem to be the purpose of Likes on Facebook: a digg-like vote of interest that facilitates people finding and creates possibilities for connection.

But I disagree that the object of shared interest is necessarily the reason for interaction and the object of communication. Objects do not create reasons for connection, nor do they ground communication and interaction. I believe it’s the other way around. Communication and interaction may take up objects as a topical theme, but the interest is as much person to person as it is person to object. You may invite a friend to dinner, but this is not because you are hungry.

Objects do not proscribe and structure social relations — objects are subordinate to relations. And interests between people are relational, not object-oriented. The object may supply a shared topic, object of interest, navigational or activity context, but need not itself be the object of communication. Instead, it facilitates connection and helps to create possibilities for communication.

The issue I have with the social object description cited above is that it conflates object and motive. Objects are viewed as causal, of social interaction and social relations. I don’t see how we could ground social interaction in objects, or even object worlds, in a manner sufficient to the psychological complexity of human social motives. Objects are not equivalent to the relations in which they are taken up.

In fact, one of the oft-cited theorists of social objects, Karin Knorr Cetina, makes this very point:

Objects of knowledge, the ones important in the present context, are characteristically open, question-generating, and complex. They are processes and projections rather than definitive things. In our interpretation, objects of knowledge seem to have the capacity to unfold indefinitely; in this sense they lie at the opposite end from pure tools and commercial commodities.

Her paper is about object worlds — she uses the example of day traders and stock market representations — not about objects as things. I think we may have misread her discussion of objects to be about things, when in fact it is about relations we take up with things, their meanings, and their representations.

Nor do I think that objects completely supply context, for context in social interaction, too, is relational. If you invite your friend to dinner, two contexts of social interaction are now relevant: the dinner as object, and the invitation as social action. Action can as easily supply context around social objects as any objective relation, or objective property. This is the approach taken by activity streams, and the reason that activity streams supports more than one expression of action. Liking alone risks digg-ification of shared social interests, and a loss of intent and meaning.

Adina Levin makes this point in a post about the Like

But that’s what Facebook’s “Like” gets rid of. See, there’s an alternative vision about social context. And that is that Facebook is your one and only source of context. Thomas Vanderwal suggests, in the discussion of Facebook’s recent announcement, that Facebook is not doing such a great job of this today: “The social graph is dangerous without context and much more dangerous w/ partial context.” ActivityStreams fosters competition among services that want to provide social context of various sorts, and Like forecloses that competition.

But it is not only context around social objects that is lost, as Vander Wal suggests. It is loss of action, too. Which is one reason for my interest in action streams. Action streams would not only be like-able social objects; they would be actionable social objects. Actionable social objects not only permit more linguistic and expressive (e.g. gestural) actions — invites, offers, announcements, etc — they capture actions on them. For example, an invitation action object could be accepted or declined. This would not only add power to objects, but would capture some social relationality — in the form of reciprocity or mutual interest. Social objects today are still only asymmetrical — two-sided liking is not required for them to serve as interest pivots between people.

There are a couple reasons a double-sided object relation model might be interesting. The first is preemptive: we avoid inundation by system status messages telling us everything about what our friends now Like. The second is enabling: we get better social data. Social data is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, for Facebook’s Likes. Facebook will preside over a world of social objects related to people whose interest declarations will given them a reason to advertise by interests served up on page context, within streams (presumably), and across its open graph (presumably) contexts.

As Obasanjo writes:

In the social media space, a few people have focused on the fact that this data is put in place to enable sites to be added to Facebook’s social graph. However there is little reason why other social networking services couldn’t also read the same markup as a way to add those web sites to their social graph. For example, Yelp is one of the sites that now supports the Open Graph Protocol so when I click like the Pro Sports Club it is added to the list of “pages” I’m a fan of on Facebook. However I could just as easily see that being a [Twitter — Like] button which would add the Twitter account for the gym to my following list along with tweeting to my followers that I liked the gym. It would only take adding a markup element to what Yelp is outputting to indicate the Twitter account of the page being liked. With my Windows Live hat on, I can imagine going to Amazon or IMDB and clicking a [Windows Live — Like] button which would add the movie to my list of favorite things. There are a ton of possibilities this opens up in a totally decentralized way without forcing services or users to be locked into a particular social network.

Unfortunately, the Like represents a pretty thin expression of interest. It fails to capture degrees of interest, or how much you like something; motivation, or why you like it; or social relations, or who you like who likes it. In this, the Like still suffers from the long tail assumption that people are alike who like the same thing — or that likeness between objects is reflected in people who like them being alike one another. Not so, of course, but this is the state of social targeting today (objects of interest are consumer segments; consumers identify with what they like).

It’s unfortunate that the Facebook Like is so close to social bookmarking, to retweeting, to diggs and the like that we still cannot capture more of the differences of kind and degree that would make the social web really interesting. But who can fault Facebook for drawing up a semantic and search strategy around the vote of interest. One-click solutions are simple interaction solutions, if not too simple. The majority of advertisers and many marketers, too, will be satisfied with the metrics Facebook will be able to offer about audiences pegged to shared Likes.

But I think that the future of social marketing still resides in a system better able to provide social relational information captured from actions, interaction, and communication. For the grail in social marketing is not the individual, but the social graph, and in particular, who to market to in a social graph. For the power of liking is not just that we like something, but that we like to be liked, too.

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